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Evo 2018: a golden age for fighting games sees a tournament to match

Evo 2018 was as amazing as ever, but the biggest tournament in fighting games was also full of reminders of how much the scene needs improvement.

It's another tired Monday after a lengthy all-nighter, but it was bloody well worth it. Evo 2018 was an incredible tournament once again, full of quality play and emotional moments - and I found it a particularly exciting year as I watched fellow Brit Benjamin "Problem X" Simon slog his way through an incredibly challenging series of matches in Street Fighter 5: Arcade Edition in order to be named the UK's first ever Street Fighter Evo champion and the first UK Evo champ in any game since 2008.

I honestly had a pretty emotional reaction to the moment of his victory - a little bit of national pride, sheer joy for him, looking dumbfounded and shellshocked that he'd actually done it as his friends, other recognizable stalwarts of the UK team, hoisted him up in celebration. It was a great moment.

That final dramatic match was really the icing on the cake, however: it was a great tournament in general across all games, though the event was also replete with reminders of how far the fighting game community has to come in terms of running its competitive events as professional, broadcast friendly esports tentpoles.

Evo is a grassroots event and that arcade-born attitude is one of the things that makes the fighting game community great, but there's no denying that recent showings from events like the Overwatch League and Riot's massive events have underlined where that fast-and-loose approach can undermine the tournament, especially when it comes to presentation on-stream. Evo keeps it simple and I'm fine with that - you're never going to get those Riot or Blizzard-level production values for Street Fighter or Dragon Ball - but I also won't sugarcoat the fact that despite it being my favorite event on the esports calendar that it could happily see adjustment and improvement.

My primary issue with Evo this year was ultimately down to timing: games over-ran their designated slots by a significant amount, and that ultimately meant that by the tail end of Sunday the show was running a full two hours behind the advertised schedule. This didn't do anybody any favors: for me it was more hours without sleep, but the late-running Street Fighter 5 also had its viewer count ravaged as the clock ticked over to midnight on the US East Coast, prompting viewers who had work the following day to shut down their streams and head to bed. These sort of timing snafus are also fundamentally incompatible with getting Evo on TV as it did in its ESPN appearances in 2016 and 2017.

The scheduling nightmares are difficult, given that the format of fighting games makes it difficult to predict exactly how long a match will go on. Part of the problem is also to do with individual games, though: Tekken 7 and Street Fighter 5 are snappy games with comparatively quick matches, but Dragon Ball FighterZ and Super Smash Bros. Melee take much longer, and there's a strong case for revisiting and reconsidering rule sets in order to speed the action up, or even shrinking top 8 finals down to top 4 for games with meatier matches.

Then there's Evo's grapple with maturity as games, players and their fans vie for attention and time. It was Smash Bros that ended up looking the fool this year, with a Smash 4 grand final that featured players who'd been mercilessly booed and mistreated by the audience for choosing a plainly overpowered, near-broken character as their main. Eventually, it boiled down to them disrespecting the tournament rules as revenge to the point where judges had to intervene. This is something that for my money undermines much of the hard work their community has put in to be accepted. Depending on how you count, Evo has been going for the better part of 20 years, but this childish stuff still rears its head all too often.

These struggles aside, the event was an absolute blast to watch right the way through - it featured some cool new DLC and character addition announcements and some incredible storylines including a US player scoring the West's highest-ever Tekken tournament finish in third place and the infamous 'gods' of Super Smash Bros. Melee being toppled from their thrones - some knocked out in pools, others humbled in the later stages of the tournament. Drama was high, and that excitement and drama is ultimately what the tournament is all about.

And sometimes it's just gloriously silly, like thousands of fans screaming along with the character intros of Dragon Ball FighterZ as matches kick off, as shown above. At its best Evo encapsulates all those things - it's often funny, thrilling and even a little moving. Evo isn't as flashily produced as its esports peers, but it has walloping amounts of heart.

For me it's all summarized in those Street Fighter finals, though - edge-of-your-seat stuff that actually turned the stomach as two juggernauts played back and forth with everything they had - and all in front of a community of thousands in person and many thousands more online who share their passion. It's the best sort of gaming, and though this sort of thrill can be found in many other genres I still maintain fully that there is something particularly special about fighters thanks to how visceral, immediate and one-on-one they are.

All of this is helped tremendously, of course, by the fact we're in a new golden age of fighting games as demonstrated in all-new titles like Dragon Ball FighterZ, a Street Fighter generation going from strength to strength, a Tekken moving into a third season of DLC and a new Smash Bros and Soulcalibur coming, the future looks brighter still. Roll on Evo Japan in January - and of course Evo 2019 this time next year.

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